Science and Religion as Conversation toward a Common Good: The Recent Work of Martin Marty

[1] Let me begin by explaining my part in commenting on Prof. Marty’s work, Building Cultures of Trust.1 Prof. Marty uses the intersection of contemporary Western science and religion as a primary “case study” to explore the ways in which attention to building trust can enhance the common good. Over the last 20 years, I have had a professional interest through research, teaching, writing, and speaking in the complex interactions between historical and modern forms of religion and science, particularly in the West. And so I’ve been asked to focus on this aspect of Prof. Marty’s characteristically wise book.

John McCarthy[2] In order to sharpen his focus a bit, let me indicate what I see to be some of the more important positions that Prof. Marty advances. First and foremost, this is not a book about science and religion like most of the works that approach this field. It is a book about enhancing cultures of trust as a means to incrementally making a qualitatively better world, understood as a world in which deliberation and actions guided by a sense of the common good prevail to the extent possible. If I were to modify a phrase often associated with Paul Ricoeur’s ethical reflection, it is a book about “the good life, for and with others, in institutions of trust.”2 The discussions of science/religion, most often also linked to politics in Marty’s work, are always positioned within this framework. As a consequence of this the discussion about science/religion differs from what is found in much professional writing on the issues where the concerns are more typically focused on epistemology, some form of shared metaphysical presuppositions between religion and science, the history of their interactions, or an instance where the interaction seems to be particularly troubled.

[3] Second, science/religion is presented as a “case study” within the project of enhancing cultures of trust. As such it is a case study of at least three aspects of this endeavor: a) “religion” and “science” are presented as examples of, somewhat interchangeably, “cultures,” “modes of experience,” “voices,” and “worldviews.” Prof. Marty is very aware that the concept of “culture” is itself a matter of contention.3 And so he is not wedded to a particular sociological or anthropological definition. He is much more concerned to recognize that there are regularly organized, distinguishable patterns of social habits, ways of speaking, ways of giving explanations, and traditions which make up the fabric of our everyday life and professional activities. Thus those who partake in religion regularly turn to certain communities, ritual, books, or institutions in carrying out their day-to-day projects. Likewise those explicitly involved and trained in the sciences raise characteristic questions, look for certain kinds of information, and engage in particular and regular forms of discourse. Part of Prof. Marty’s claim is that religious and scientific practices involve these regularized and distinguishable patterns understood as “cultures,” and thus science/religion interactions can act as a productive case study to look at issues of “trust”. b) A second aspect that seems to make the science/religion interaction a suitable case study stems from recognition of the inherent plurality of contemporary life. Simply put, we exist in multiple, regularly organized distinguishable life patterns simultaneously all the time. We are simultaneously in economic exchange, multiple social roles, with various traditional and linguistic backgrounds. Importantly, not all these life patterns interact smoothly like a set of well-engineered gears. And yet, in some way, we seem to get through the day in our individual, social, institutional, and political lives with some tensive sense of a loose unity captured by terms like “character”, and “culture.” To state this in a way that is a bit closer to the science/religion topic, in contemporary “western culture” neither science nor religion are going away. Both present regularly ordered but distinguishable life patterns. Both have their institutional forms. Sometimes there is conflict which leads to genuine argument between these two “cultures.” By our very location in this modern society we cannot escape either of these cultures interacting at the various levels of our lives –– personal, social, political, economic, judicial, etc. Thus understanding the issues of trust and mistrust in the science/religious configuration provides a “case study” of both the factual and necessary experiences of the harmonies and discordances of fundamental trust claims in contemporary society. c) A third reason why religion/science seems to function as a “case study” for Prof. Marty is because those actually involved professionally in the potential harmonies and discordances of trust illustrate options or examples of the range of conversations that can occur when multiple cultures call simultaneously for trust. Marty’s position is not one that identifies science and religion as essentially in conflict, or as essentially dealing with non-overlapping aspects of human life. Nor does Marty’s position hold that there is an underlying epistemological, metaphysical, or ontological horizon that could be discovered as the ground of a mutual trust between these two life patterns. For the most part in this book, science and religion are not reified, making those who understand themselves as religious or scientific practitioners simply puppet voices for an underlying ideology. Rather, Marty locates science/religion intersections in the realm of conversation, and most often, through a range of actual speakers: Dawkins, Collins, Harris, Polkinghorne, Barbour, DeWall, Kass, Peacocke, Rolston and more. Thus the “case study” of science/religion does not so much take the form of preferred essential or utopian models as it does an ongoing, inevitable “conversation” which requires informed participants, willing to correct their “category mistakes” about both science and religion, willing to learn more, to argue, to expand their horizons by a genuine –– not to say, agreed upon –– concern with the common good, in an ongoing process which at points comes to definite, conflicted, politically achieved decisions with various social effects. In Marty’s words, arguments may be won or lost; conversations are not. In the case of science/religion, “winning,” if it means “game over” is losing. Since neither science nor religion as aspects of a common life will go away, the real goal is to keep the conversation not only alive but directed to the common good, not as an inevitable goal –– Marty specifically rejects a “meliorist” approach as utopian –– but as the ethical marker of the kind of culture that could include the subcultures of both science and religion.

[4] A third observation about Prof. Marty’s position: the text is an exercise in practical reasoning, not in the sense of a roadmap to achieve cultures of trust, but more in the Kantian sense of the identification of a formally described rule for interaction when trust is a necessary intention for human action described as “good.” The rule is the rule of conversation understood both thickly and realistically. Prof. Marty clearly recognizes that the conversation he calls for is not only modeled on the largely cordial and controlled formats established in the Academy or through institutions like the Templeton Foundation or the Trust Institute at Stony Brook. Most conversations about science/religion issues that lead to social programming and allocation of financial resources are deeply influenced by economic and political interests, by personal and institutional gains, by misinformation and systematic distortion. There is no guarantee that the result of any one of the possible conversations could be considered, in the short or long-term, as a substantial contribution to the common good. But, in the end, what is the alternative? Conversation can be superficial, deceptive, seemingly futile, often more placating than transformative. And yet conversation can also lead to new ideas, to mutual reliance, to new information, to genuine argument, and to more widely informed action. Counseled by thinkers like Michael Oakeshott, David Tracy, and Jürgen Habermas on the complexity of conversation as a rule for interaction leading to trust, this conversational location of the science/religion interaction provides a measure of the results of conversation quite different from that often encountered in the “I got it right; you got it wrong” formats encouraged by the examples associated with intelligent design and the new atheism. The measure is more how the interaction leads to respect, promise keeping, informed conflict, genuine arguments, non-utopian visions, preservation of the best of cultures through transformation, fullness and quality of life in light of the common good. Such measures are neither easily nor non-argumentatively quantifiable, but, at the same time, neither are they unrecognizable nor non-public/private. And so the practicality of the position is one that corresponds to the complexity of the means and measures for achieving the good life for and with others within the institutions of trust and by means of ongoing conversation.

[5] With these three observations in mind –– the location of the science/religion interaction within the larger consideration of cultures of trust; the identification of science/religion interactions as a “case study” of cultures of trust; and the assertion that conversation, thickly described, is the mechanism by which such cultures of trust might have some hope for success –– let me raise two issues among a host of others that might be helpful to further conversation about the conversation between science and religion.

[6] First, Prof. Marty quite rightly notes that the conversations carried out under the banner of science/religion are often hampered by serious “category mistakes.” Such mistakes are not only ones dealing with equivocal vocabulary –– for example, life, soul, law, mind –– but also with distinctions between empirical and symbolic uses of language, the kinds of truth claims that can be made within the limits of methods, the varieties of referential possibilities, and the genres used to convey understanding. Focusing on this problem of “category mistake” and the role of conversation in addressing this issue creates a sense that much of what the conversation would be about is information sharing and correction. And, to be sure, this is often the case in science/religion encounters, and it is likewise essential for cultures of trust. But to go beyond conversations that are more than mutually informative, as necessary as this may be, places significant demands on the conversation partners, demands beginning with literacy in complex fields or research and writing. The work of Jon D. Miller, the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies and Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University4, speaks to one side of this issue: scientific literacy in the North American population. The results of his long-term research are important, but not encouraging in relation to this issue of conversation and trust. In 2000, 18% of the population of the United States might be considered “scientifically literate” enough to read the science page of the New York Times. Five years later, the percentage increased to 28%, largely attributed to the requirement in colleges that at least one course in science must be part of the general education requirements. The discouraging side of Miller’s work is the realization that almost 75% of the population could be considered below this basic threshold. Coupled with this is survey data which indicates that the United States has one of the lowest population proportions accepting the theory of biological evolution, about 40% in 2005. I am not aware of corresponding statistics –– although there are a myriad of claims and online tests –– regarding something like “religious literacy.” At the professional level where the science/religion interaction might occur with a chance for informed discourse, if not for a more robust impact on political policy formation or economic allocation, the programs and curricula for professional preparations do little to enhance the prospects for conversation beyond information sharing. Professional theological preparation places little, if any, importance on scientific literacy. Preparation for work in the fields of science may require a course in professional ethics, but characteristically nothing else that would contribute to “religious” or “theological” literacy. Much more could be said about the implications of scientific, religious, and theological illiteracy in both the popular and professional discourses, but suffice it to say here that aside from the rare figures like John Polkinghorne or Kenneth Miller, there are few whose literacy and practice move the types of conversation under the banner of science/religion to the competence, caution, and creativity necessary for conversations about science/religion.

[7] Second, beyond the issue of literacy, some consideration of professional disincentives in pursuing the conversations may be helpful. For most professionally involved in scientific research programs discussion with theologians or about religion is an expensive luxury. Competition for research funding is much more critical to carrying on the profession than is discussion with those professionally engaged in the study of religion. More than this, it is often understood as, at best, a distraction from science, and at worst, an indication that whatever science might be carried out is working with some other criteria than would be considered standard in the field. What benefit is really gleaned by the sciences in their discussions with theologians? More often than not, the invitation to such discussions comes from the side of those involved in religion who recognize that if religion is to have a public impact in a world ever more dependent on the complex interactions of science and technology, it must become much better informed about evolution, cognitive sciences, quantum theory, and contemporary cosmology then it has been. In some fields, most notably medical and environmental sciences, the relation with religion or theology may have a bit more obvious affinity because of ethical questions, or because of the ability of religious symbols to rhetorically motivate groups of people. To risk putting the issue of disincentives provocatively, if not crudely, would the team of scientists who worked to put Curiosity on Mars have been better off scientifically, or contributed more to the common good of the society, if they had been in more direct conversation with theology? A theo-political argument might have been made that the funding directed to such interplanetary exploration is better put toward another, more immediately pressing, social need, but even such an argument is not patently obvious, and is certainly not an incentive to better science.

[8] In the end, as is always the case with the work of Prof. Marty, one leaves a little bit wiser and certainly much more informed. The way that Prof. Marty locates the science/religion interchange in the discussion of cultures of trust and under the rule of conversation directed to the common good is a fresh contribution to this field. To be sure many more issues might be broached –– whether science and religion are much more deeply involved in the expectation about what counts as the common good than what Prof. Marty’s comments seem to suggest, or whether institutionalized religion in particular is open to the forms of radical transformation that some science might demand –– and yet this is the real contribution of Prof. Marty’s work: it encourages, even demands, that argumentative conversation take place about such issues.

1. Martin E. Marty, Building Cultures of Trust (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).

2. Paul Ricoeur, Oneself As Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 172. The sentence referred to reads, “Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions.’” A further question might be raised about Professor Marty’s concern with trust, and its relation to institutions of justice.

3. Professor Marty is most explicitly aware of this on pages 11-15 and in the discussion of Michael Oakeshott. It is worth noting that Professor Marty cites the work of Philip Bagby and uses a quotation from Bagby as the epigraph of the book. It is significant because the quotation makes a rather sharp distinction between regularities in behavior that are “hereditary in origin” and those that are “cultural.” Distinctions like this are exactly what is at stake in some of the discussions between science and religion, and thus the issue of “culture” itself may not be the best category to carry forward the discussion of science and religion.

4. Jon D. Miller and R.T. Pennock, “Secularism and Science in the 21st Century,” in Science Education and Religion in America in the 21st Century: Holding the Middle, ed. by Ariela Keyser & Barry Kosmin (Hartford: Trinity College, 2008) 9-32; also by Miller, “The Public Understanding of Science in Europe and the United States” presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, San Francisco, California, 2007; also by Miller, “The Conceptualization and Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy for the Twenty-First Century” in Science and the Educated America: A Core Component of Liberal Education, ed. by Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand (Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2010) 241-255.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Chicago.